For you, my friends, this is a little taster of what’s in store for Nick Hunter when he decides to hunt down the people who tortured and killed his parents.
Obviously short on time, the old, wiry man splashed straight through puddles in his hurry to reach his goal. He was wearing an old-fashioned bowler, out of which irregular tufts of brilliant white hair were poking out all over the place, unyielding to the rain. His black trench coat was so sodden it looked almost like an oil slick, its hem splashed with reddish splodges of mud which caked the soles of his good quality shoes, as well.
When he reached the corner of the street, he left the sanctuary of the overgrown hedges and ventured to the other side of the road, risking one quick look over his shoulder to make sure that he wasn’t being followed. He wasn’t sure why he needed to see it for himself. Maybe to make doubly sure that there was nothing incriminating that could land him in trouble with the law, or with the others. Come to think of it, the law didn’t scare him half as much.
Stepping carefully over the police tape, the man moved swiftly to the far end of the fire-darkened building and turned towards the metal door set between two red brick walls partly hidden by an overly-exuberant wisteria. Out of his trench coat pocket he produced an outdated key, with which he proceeded to unlock the door.
After a little struggle, there was a positive clunk and the door groaned open inwards. The man entered and shoved the door back, but Nick’s foot was over the threshold already. Not waiting for a clear invitation, Nick pushed his way in, and then slammed the door shut behind them both.
The ravages of fire had little effect on this room – cellar, Nick guessed, probably old enough to be separated from the main house by a few feet of soil. It was dark, cold and damp.
“W-what do you want? I have nothing left,” the man whimpered when Nick shone his torch on his wrinkly face.
“Just a little chat,” Nick replied calmly. “I believe you knew my dad, Mortimer.”
The man jumped noticeably at the mention of his name and blinked repeatedly as if by doing so the terrifying stranger standing in front of him would disappear. “I know a lot of people,” he hedged.
“I’m talking about Randolph,” Nick clarified.
“Randolph. He and I go back a good few years. You are his son, you say?”
“One of them. I guess he didn’t talk about us that much.”
“No, Randolph is a very private man. He never mentions many personal details.”
“Did,” Nick corrected. “Never did. My father died this morning.”
Mortimer started at the words, but recovered quickly. “I’m very sorry to hear that, my dear boy. Very sorry indeed. I wish there was something to do to help.”
“As it happens, there is.”
“I know my father trusted you enough to keep coming back to you with all his publishing needs.”
“Yes, I arranged all the necessaries for him. Very private man, Randolph. He didn’t like dealing with strangers.”
“My father mentioned something. Something he felt compelled to share with me before he took his last breath. Unfortunately, by then his thinking had become somewhat disjointed, erratic.” Nick winced as he remembered Randolph’s last few minutes and the injustice he was doing him by letting Mortimer Hughes believe the Judge’s thinking had become muddled. In fact, it had been clear as ice; he’d spoken with focused determination. “I would be grateful, therefore,” Nick struggled to concentrate on the here and now, “if you could tell me what you know about him and the Brotherhood of Death.”
“Oh, dear. I don’t know if I should speak about that…”
“I know he was involved with it, and I know he later tried to get out. I know about the code of silence, but…”
“Then you will understand why I can’t tell you anything, my dear boy. If they should find out…”
“And who will tell them? I’m not exactly their biggest fan, after what they did to my father.”
Mortimer swallowed loudly, thus confirming that he indeed had a very good idea of what the Brotherhood might have done to Randolph, but kept quiet.
“I need to know,” Nick insisted through gritted teeth. “I will pull it out of you piece by piece, if necessary. Don’t make me. It won’t be as pleasant as a tooth extraction.”
Mortimer’s breathing spiked at the unveiled threat in Nick’s voice. “Ok, I’ll tell you. But please don’t judge me too harshly. Keep in mind that I am a mere man, and not a particularly brave man at that.” Nick waited for him to order his thoughts. “The first time your father became involved was during his student years here…” Mortimer looked up, his brow showing signs of stress.
Nick nodded. “He said.”
“One of the many fellowships – student life abounds with them. They’re all into mysticism, rituals of initiation, secrecy; all much of a muchness. Up to a point, the Brotherhood was the same. This is just its UK arm. They’re much, much bigger than any of us had ever imagined. Its leaders hold the key to the control button that could crumble this whole planet to dust, but also to the coffers that could completely eliminate disease and hunger, at least for our life time. You must have heard about the Skull and Bones. Here, they also followed their customary path. For valued members, they merely ease the way. They help people into good careers, strategic positions, you know… And in return, when the need arises, the people they once helped would be perfectly situated to return the favour. They did facilitate your father’s progress, though it wasn’t obvious to him at the time – he got a pupilage with Goldberg, right away. He was talented. Very talented and very clever, so he was soon encouraged to stretch his wings, to take more and more controversial cases, important ones, the kind that would get him noticed, his name recognised. It worked; he progressed incredibly fast.”
Mortimer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and mopped his brow absently, while continuing to talk.
“And then, there came a time for payback. Randolph was completely unaware and bluntly refused to er… help. He was a man of great integrity, your father. One of the few who could smell a rat a mile away. The case where his help was needed, if I remember correctly, was between Rossiter and the Metropolitan Police. It was quite complex, I never understood all the implications, but it appeared that a Superintendent’s conduct during Rossiter’s arrest was a little doubtful and the press had a field day with it. As it happens, Rossiter lost anyway, and the story swiftly disappeared off the front pages to make space for more interesting news.”
“That’s when my father started asking questions.”
“Quite. It wasn’t easy. Having refused the organisation, doors closed in his face and people regularly suffered sudden attacks of memory loss. However, Randolph could be really focused when he wanted to get to the bottom of things and he soon gathered enough information – witnesses’ accounts, fishy business transactions and the like – to present a reasonably strong case. He decided to put it all in writing, in a book unmasking the shady mechanism by which entire countries were being manipulated by persons unseen and unknown. It would have made some waves, in paperback. Alas, it was not to be.”
Mortimer stopped again, mopped his brow and shuffled his feet. He seemed reluctant to go on.
Nick prodded, “You were his agent.”
“So? Who did you approach? Which publisher?”
Mortimer sighed. “Many. It was easier for me to make a case for a book, a presentation if you like, and send this to a few choice contacts. This time I sent it to eight different people. Within the week, I’d had seven refusals. Not just refusals, but the sort of answer that leaves you in no doubt that from then on you are an outcast. You know the bridge has been not just burnt, but so thoroughly and severely cut and shredded, that there is no chance of rebuilding it ever again.”
“And the eighth?”
“The eighth had recently changed hands. I didn’t know… I should have kept up to date with the news in the industry but I had a lot on my plate at the time and… I just didn’t. The new owner’s name was Goldberg. Yeah, same family. Not the same person, but it might as well have been. I cannot describe the threats, the terror. Living had suddenly become a waking nightmare. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. My business was pretty much ruined. No one would touch me with a bargepole anymore.”
“Did you tell my dad?”
“I did. And he understood. He didn’t blame me, you know? He said so. He said he was sorry he had ruined my life.”
Nick felt a finger of ice run up his back. Blame? What for? “What did you do?”
“I’m sorry,” Mortimer whimpered. “If I could turn back the clock…”
“What did you do, scum?” Nick found it harder and harder to control the anger he felt building up inside him. “Tell me!” he shouted at the terrified man.
“I told them. I told them everything they asked for. I gave them the manuscript, but it is copyrighted. They couldn’t just use it. All they could do was to unpick it piece by piece and discredit every witness statement, mock every assumption, every logical conclusion, every supposition. It took months but, slowly, I could see how little credibility his book would have even if it somehow did make it on chain bookstores’ shelves. All his work, the risks he’d taken to gather all the information – now it is nothing. Worthless. And then, stranger things started to happen. People started to disappear. Rossiter did, amongst the first – I remember the incident; I thought it a little strange, at the time. He lived in an unsavoury part of the city. Some louts raided the local shops one night, threw petrol bombs. He lived above a dry cleaner’s. The only one to die in the entire street.”
“Tell me about these people. What sort of things did they want to know? What more could they want if you already gave them the manuscript?” Nick had forgotten time and place, absorbed as he was by the horror story.
Mortimer shuffled awkwardly back a couple of steps.
“They wanted to know the names of all the people I ever spoke to. About Randolph’s book, I mean. That was easy; they weren’t that many.” He took a deep breath, and continued. “And they wanted to know how to contact them.”
Nick was starting to realise the sheer power of the organisation he had taken on. But, as far as he was concerned, that was not at all a defence for the way this cowardly old man had acted.
“You,” he growled at the steadily retreating figure. “You gave them my parents’ address,” he accused. “You got them murdered. They tortured them before they killed them, did you know?”
“I had no choice.”
“You always have a choice.”
“I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to suffer.”
“You, scum.” Nick choked the words out, livid with rage. He was so mad, he thought of nothing but how easy it would be to squeeze the life out of this gutless excuse for a human being. Mortimer saw his anger, and maybe the years of having to dodge the Brotherhood had taught him something, because he bent over, suddenly and without warning and disappeared from view.
Before Nick could locate him again, a low groan of rusty metal on concrete reached his ears. In the next second he was knocked off his feet by an enormous weight that just kept coming. Layer upon layer of heavy cardboard storage boxes, together with the shelves they had been stored on, landed on him, crushing him, leaving him winded and gasping for air. Some boxes split open and piles of paper toppled out. It seemed like a lifetime of manuscripts were working at one with their master.
By the time Nick managed to free himself from the combined weight of metal and paper, Mortimer Hughes was long gone. Nick knew he wouldn’t come back soon; the old man was too much of a coward. Why he’d risked returning to the cellar in the first place was a baffling question. Nick surveyed the scene, as best he could, with the limited help of his torch. It looked like a hurricane had passed right through the middle of it. Metal twisted, boxes split. There was paper everywhere. If what Mortimer wanted was in here, then he’d probably left without it. The temptation to start searching was unbearably strong, but then Nick reminded himself of his tight schedule and the fact that Jesse had had a considerable head start. If Dollar had been tipped off, it would make tracking him down that much harder. And then, there was another lead he wanted to follow. Than name in the paperwork Randolph had been forced to sign, Alastair Lloyd Campbell, and why in the world would he be interested in the Whitbourne’s estate.
With a sigh, Nick gave the agent’s cellar another regretful glance, then he turned his back on it and walked away.